Cannes Cartoon Club
Posted on Saturday May 19, 2012, 12:47 by Chris Hewitt in Under The Radar
Bonjour, le web.
As the more keen-eyed among you may have noticed, there are no Cannes videblogisodes this year. Somehow, it doesn’t feel right doing them without Sam Toy, who’s now back in Australia. But fingers crossed, we’ll be able to work something out for next year. In the meantime, enjoy what I’m calling a textiblogisode. That should catch on.
This may seem strange for a film festival that, over the next two weeks, will see films from the likes of Jacques Audiard, Cristian Mungiu, Wes Anderson, Walter Salles, Andrew Dominik, David Cronenberg, Michael Haneke, Thomas Vinterberg, Abbas Kiorastami and Alain Resnais, but Cannes just isn’t Cannes without animation. Or, if you will, Cannimation. (No? Please yourself.)
My Cannes – truncated this year because of the videblogisode situation, a title in search of a Robert Ludlum novel if ever there was one – began and pretty much ended with a double-dip into DreamWorks Animation. The studio that Katzenberg built has made something of a tradition of its presence on La Croisette over the years, with the likes of Shark Tale, Bee Movie (for which Jerry Seinfeld flung himself on a zip line from the roof of the Carlton Hotel, while dressed as a bee), Kung Fu Panda, innumerable Shreks and Puss In Boots all getting a nifty promotional nudge.
This year it was the turn of Rise Of The Guardians and Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted. The latter is playing here, out of competition. But the former, the big DWA release for the second half of the year, is unfinished, and it received a big bells-and-whistles presentation the other day. Stars Alec Baldwin, Chris Pine and Isla Fisher – whose husband was dressing up as The Dictator and pretending to murder Elisabetta Canalis at the very same moment that his wife was plugging a family film – director Peter Ramsey and, of course, Jeffrey Katzenberg showed up because, even though France may run on a different power supply system, plugs are universal.
There’ll be more about them later, but first – to the footage. Ramsey – a fascinating character who worked for years as a storyboard artist with the likes of David Fincher, Steven Spielberg and Spike Jonze (in fact, he has two entries on the IMDb, which clearly doesn’t know that the guy who directed Monsters Vs Aliens: Mutant Pumpkins From Outer Space is also the chap who drew purdy pictures for Fight Club) – introduced several extended scenes from the movie, which is based on William Joyce’s The Guardians Of Childhood series.
The concept of that series, and the film, is wish-I’d-thought-of-that simple: Santa Claus, The Easter Bunny, The Tooth Fairy, The Sandman and Jack Frost are ancient and powerful beings whose jobs it is to protect the children of the world. When Pinch, aka the Boogeyman, puts into place a plan to snatch their power and envelop children in a never-ending nightmare, the Guardians must come together to save the day.
“They’re very active, and evil is something they have to fight,” says Baldwin. “It’s like the Justice League of Childhood.” When that reference didn’t go over too well with an audience that clearly doesn’t know their DC comics, Isla Fisher popped up with a much more current reference. “They’re like animated Avengers.”
Baldwin plays the film’s Santa Claus, reinvented here as a burly Russian warrior called North, sporting ‘Naughty’ and ‘Nice’ tattoos on his bear-like arms, and who’s just as liable to lop your head off with a sword as he is to ho-ho-ho his way down your chimney.
But it was Pine’s character, Jack, who was first up in a sequence that very swiftly disabused any notions I had of the tone and look of Rise Of The Guardians. Given the premise and the characters, I was expecting something cartoony and poppy, like DreamWorks’ Monsters Vs Aliens, and a relentless gagfest.
Instead, the first scene, in which Jack, newly birthed by the mysterious Man In The Moon, dances around a forest, turning everything he touches to ice and slowly coming to terms with his powers (but not his place in the world), clearly shows that Rise has loftier goals. It starts with Pine’s husky voice saying, simply, “Darkness. That’s the first thing I remember. It was dark, it was cold, and I was scared.”
And then we see Jack, hundreds of years before the movie proper takes place, leaping around a simply gorgeous animated landscape. And it’s immediate: this is an elegant, ethereal, even melancholy introduction to a character (the film’s true protagonist) who can never touch human beings, who yearns for contact, who’s truly lonely, but who takes delight in his abilities. There’s nothing glib here, no winks to the audience, no crowbarred pop culture jokes. There’s perhaps – although I should be careful, lest the Hyperbole Police come to cart me away – a touch of Miyazaki.
In fact, Ramsey later told Empire that he was influenced by the films of Powell & Pressburger, including The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. Something tells me that this isn’t going to be your typical kids’ film.
The second scene, in which we meet North, is a change of pace and tone (although not violently). We first meet the man-mountain carving a moving toy train out of ice, before his Yeti helpers come in and literally bark a warning to him about something happening out in his workshop. North rushes out to see his giant globe – with every country lit up by shimmering lights – slowly taken over by a creeping black oil-like substance. It’s a vision of a dark future, one in which Pitch has taken over the world. In Rise Of The Guardians, much is made of the power of belief – North and the other Guardians get their powers directly from children who believe in them. No belief, no powers. It’s a twist, one imagines, on the power-of-screams in Monsters, Inc., and is an interesting conceit, even if you can already imagine where the film’s going to go with that.
From there, we segue directly into meeting the rest of the Guardians, from Fisher’s Tooth Fairy, an effervescent, ebullient fairy who takes utter joy in the teeth that kids leave for her (each tooth contains their most potent childhood memories, which are stored for future use, like a magical hard drive), to Bunnymund (Hugh Jackman), an aggressive, sarcastic Australian Guardian who travels around the world via a network of tunnels, and Sandy, the mute guardian of children’s dreams who comes across like a lovable, golden cross between Harpo Marx and Teller. When we meet him, he’s summoned by North and immediately conjures a beautiful plane out of dream-sand particles. In a film with such gorgeous visuals, he could stand out from the crowd.
The next scene shows Jack – who still can’t touch, or be seen by, humans – instigate a snowball fight with a group of kids in modern-day America. It’s a fun scene – the first sign that this has any of the love of slapstick beloved of most other animated movies – but again, there’s that hint of melancholy, as Jack tries desperately to interact with, and be recognised by, the kids (who will play a much bigger part, I suspect; one kid in particular loses a tooth). It ends with him railing against the Man in the Moon, as night falls and, in the most beautiful image of the entire presentation, The Sandman’s shimmering tendrils of dreams snake through the town and bring sweet thoughts to the sleeping children.
So we’ve met The Guardians, but only had a glimpse of the movie’s villain, Pitch (voiced by Jude Law). That soon changes, as Pitch appears in a sleeping child’s bedroom and, with a single touch, turns their dream unicorn – golden and iridescent – into a snarling, bucking, nightmare horse, powered by fear. It’s about as dark and scary as you can get away with in films like these – kids of a certain age may not be able to handle Pitch very well.
With Pitch about to accelerate his plans (“The wait is over!” he tells his newly-formed apprentice), it’s time for The Guardians to form. So Bunny – a determinedly Australian creation, with Jackman retaining his accent and talking of “underdecks” and gumtrees – pops up to see Jack (who, up until now, has not been part of the Guardians’ secret society) and, with the help of some of North’s Yetis, take him back to the North Pole.
There, Jack is welcomed by North, the Tooth Fairy (who immediately tries to examine his molars), Sandy and the Bunny. “Am I on the naughty list?” asks Jack. North explains that Jack has been chosen, by the Man in the Moon, as a Guardian, at which Jack seems somewhat nonplussed. If not downright pissed off. So North takes him through his workshop (as elves and Yetis work furiously to manufacture toys), and asks him – magical being to magical being – to, essentially, man up and discover the hero within. As Jack ruminates, Bunnymund appears with news – there’s trouble at the Tooth Palace, which prompts the Guardians to jump into North’s sleigh, a Batmobile-esque (in fact, the temp music here was from Danny Elfman’s Batman, later giving way to Michael Giacchino’s Star Trek theme, surely a nod to Chris Pine’s presence) beast, throbbing and transforming, the sort of thing that would give Jeremy Clarkson a fit of the heebies.
And, as they fly into the night, that was that. And, I have to say, that was damned impressive. DreamWorks, for all its success, has always lived beneath the shadow of Pixar. Lately, though, with the likes of How To Train Your Dragon and the appointment of Guillermo del Toro as a sort of creative overlord on their entire slate, they’re stepping up to the plate, whether it’s with fun throwaways like Puss In Boots or Megamind, or more serious, affecting fare like Dragon and, it seems, this. It’ll be mighty interesting to see how the final version fares.
Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, which I saw the day after, isn’t out until October, and you’ll have to wait for the full Empire review. However, I will say this: it’s very much in the former camp of fun throwaways. But it boasts an astonishing bombardment of jokes from minute one, many of which – possibly thanks to the presence of Noah Baumbach (yes, Greenberg’s Noah Baumbach) as co-writer – are genuinely inspired. I hadn’t seen either of the previous Madagascars before this one, and wasn’t expecting much, but I had a very pleasant surprise. It’s a blast.
It also has something in common with Jacques Audiard’s Rust & Bone, one of the frontrunners for the Palme D’Or – both have sequences (featuring animals) set to Katy Perry’s Firework. Rumour has it that all Cannes filmmakers are now frantically trying to insert the song into their films. I think it’ll work a treat in Ken Loach’s The Angel’s Share.